Wake up Eagles fans because we’re not in the Super Bowl just yet. There is a moratorium on using a certain phrase that rhymes with “Ream Team” in regard to the 2011 Eagles. While we all know that preseason games don’t really matter, they do tell us a lot about the players who will make this team. If the lockout offers us nothing else, it caused the NFL to dispense with OTA and involuntary voluntary mini-camps and rookie camps and for the most part the bulk of training camp. In turn, that makes these four meaningless preseason games matter – because three weeks from now the games are real.
It is widely known that football is essentially chess for the beer drinking crowd. The NFL is about creative strategy countered by defensive adjustment and complimented by brute force, speed and pure will. Speed kills – except when met with overwhelming brute force and planted into the turf or cast aside like a rag doll. Brute force can be skunked by leverage and speed and aggressiveness – or in some cases taking advantage of over-aggressiveness and skill to fell the proverbial giant. If David is the foil to Goliath then Goliath sometimes winds up wiping what’s left of David off the bottom of his giant shoe. That is the yin-yang balance of the NFL and we as fans relish the reinvention and reinvigoration every season.
The Eagles bowed out in their first playoff game last season, losing a heartbreaker to the eventual champion Green Bay Packers. Those Packers played a respectable Super Bowl against the vaunted Pittsburgh Steelers, who have always been the stalwart of tradition and honor and pride and defense. In recent years that defense has been lorded over by guru Dick LeBeau who at the age of 73, has not let a little thing like being enshrined in the Hall of Fame stop him from further perfecting his craft. Dismantling, confusing and demoralizing opposing offenses is what LeBeau teaches his players and most of his veterans from last season have returned for 2011. The Eagles defense boasts 8 new potential starters and has a large learning curve over the next two weeks. Despite Pittsburgh’s veteran, grizzled defense, it was the Steelers offense which exposed the weakness of the Philadelphia Kiddie Corps on defense.
First glance at the stat sheet would indicate a relatively evenly-matched game. Similar number of first downs (21-23), total yards (335-403) and passing yards (237-259) all seems reasonable. Then you delve more deeply to such stats as turnovers (5-0), INT (4-0), penalties (Eagles 4-44 yards, Steelers 9-75) and of course time of possession (21:09 – 38:51) and you realize the 24-14 score is generously misleading. Michael Vick (5-12, 47 yards) was unfocused and suffered the failings of his training wheeled offensive line. Ronnie Brown (6-25, 4.2 YPC) and LeSean McCoy (4-25, 6.3 YPC) were used sparingly, but were matched by the efforts of third string QB Mike Kafka (2 rushes for 24 yards, plus 14-19 and 160 passing yards). Jeremy Maclin (DNP) has rejoined the team after an illness and DeSean Jackson (2 rec, 8 yards) was not much of a factor either. The second and third team receivers racked up some yardage in garbage time but most of these guys won’t even make the roster for the next preseason game – let alone the regular season. Keep in mind that Andy Reid rarely displays his offensive playbook during the preseason as he prefers to keep it pretty vanilla. This prevents other teams from studying the offense on tape before the regular season.
Once again, preseason so no one expects fantastic stats but the most truly telling indicator was the repeated effect of the Pittsburgh offense fooling and baiting the over-aggressive Eagles defense – including the Bermuda Triangle defensive backfield. In the first quarter when all of the “starters” were in the game, Pittsburgh ran a series of draws and rollouts and screen passes to set up the young Eagles defense for what proved to be a relatively easy scoring drive. Cullen Jenkins had a standout play where he chased down Ben Roethelsberger and had the Pittsburgh QB dead to rights but then his passion got the best of him and Jenkins grabbed Big Ben’s facemask for a blatant penalty. The good news is that there were so many penalties this one might have gone unnoticed. The bad news is that despite the myriad of penalties on both sides (obviously the result of lack of practice) Pittsburgh still marched down the field otherwise unmolested. The Eagles defense looked bad – including Nate Allen and Asante Samuel (who both bit on Roethelsberger’s play fake), two of the few returning veterans on this Philadelphia defense. Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie still need time to define their roles in this defensive scheme.
Linebacker and offensive line have been concerns since last season. While I am optimistic that Danny Watkins and Jason Kelce will continue to improve week to week, offensive linemen in the NFL need reps in order to experience stunts and gambits. These rookies will suffer the most across the league from the lockout. By season’s end Watkins and Kelce will be integral parts of this offensive line. Hopefully Jamal Jackson, Mike McGlynn and Todd Heremans can hold it together with a rotation until midseason. Much like last season’s surprise linebacker Jamar Chaney, one never knows who will emerge due to circumstance. Much is being made about Chaney (a 2010 7th round draft pick) leading a linebacking corps consisting of Moses Fokou and rookie Casey Matthews. None of the linebackers looked sharp against Pittsburgh but the same was said of Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs during their first preseason. Those two wound up becoming the modern day Monsters of the Midway but it took time for them to learn NFL offenses and their role in neutralizing them. Give Chaney, Foukou and Matthews at least the preseason before we write them off. This trio could crash and burn or they could surprise even their coaches who see them every day in practice… Well, who would have seen them in practice had there been practice during training camp. Jury is still out on this one.
This was the second preseason game and there is still a lot of time to work on getting better. Defensive coordinator Juan Castillo can use the tape of this game as a teaching tool in what not to do against an NFL offense (or Division III offense for that matter). Since the Eagles next preseason game is not scheduled against the Little Sisters of Mercy, they would be well-served to step it up in practice this week and shore up their weaknesses.
Perhaps best to allow this very young team the entire preseason to get it together define their roles and learn how to play together. They’ve had glorified two-hand touch through most of training camp and more than half the players are still learning the names of their new teammates. Inexperienced or not, these are professionals. Professional players, coaches, trainers and strategists – all of whom need to learn what weapons they have available and how best to use them. Once they do that, then we will see what happens on the field when the games start to count.
Patience Eagles fans. Paper champions are as transient as over-reaction to preseason games.
About the Author
Written by Christopher Rowe
Contributing writer Comcast Sports, NY Times contributing stringer 1996-2000, Contributing writer Yahoo Sports (2001 World Series). Contributing writer Newsday Long Island (1992-1994, Jets Training Camp) and Newak Star Ledger. Freelance Copywriter, Editor/Founder Atlantic Times Weekly (1993-2003) fantasy football magazine, produced screenwriter and general humorist. Hofstra University grad, Marist College honorary alum, Salesian; Purveyor of the Value and Valor of Philadelphia Eagles 1960 NFL Championship; Adrent believer that Eagles could have won Super Bowl XV...and Super Bowl XXXIX...plus modern decade of Eagles 5 NFC Championships... Believer in the Broad Street Bullies and the 1983 Sixers... Witness to Philadelphia Phillies World Series championships 1980 & 2008, Suffered Phillies first pro sports team to reach 10,000 losses,witnessed "1980 Cardiac Kids," 1983 "Wheeze Kids," 1993 "Macho Row" and many, many, many not-so-memorable seasons in-between... until the Philadelphia Baseball Renaissance of 21st Century, Five NL East division titles 2007-2011, 3 NLCS appearances 2008-2010, 2 consecutive World Series berths 2008 & 2009. 2008 World Champions of baseball [miss ya Harry and Richie]; "collector" of MLB ballparks (42 stadiums including 15 which are gone); Fantasy Football & Baseball player since 1992. Always a sports fan... Tenui Nec Dimittam Contact me firstname.lastname@example.org